Sunday, March 19, 2023

Lux Umbra Dei

   She knew the way; she’d been doing this for years. Decades, maybe? She couldn’t remember when she first started being responsible for this particular task. A long time ago, that’s when.

   Today she had a canvas carry-bag with her. The church had been running low on votive candles, although there had been very few coins in the money box on the votive stand for quite a while now. People were burning the candles without donating? That never used to happen… But she didn’t bother the priest about it. She just paid the difference out of her own pocket when she reordered more candles.

   The most recent order had just arrived, so she was taking them to the church. At one time, she been able to pick them up easily at a local church supply store, but it had closed a few years back and there were no others nearby. She missed going there and seeing all the church items and religious statues and paintings. They also had very nice little greeting cards with Bible verses on them, which she bought—thankfully in bulk--to send to friends, most of whom lived far away now. For quite a long time, she had also been sending them to the invalids and shut-ins in her church. She smiled wryly at the thought that she might be joining those ranks soon. And who would send cards to her when she could no longer get about? She didn’t know—the congregation had steadily dwindled over the years. But as her age advanced, her energy and mobility retreated. Thank goodness she could still do these tasks for her beloved church. She just walked more slowly, due to her unsteady legs.

    As she turned a corner near to the church building, she saw a group of young teenage boys across the street, doing nothing. Why aren’t they in school? she wondered. She tried to schedule her trips to the church when the nearby school was in session; she preferred negotiating quiet streets, when her slowness wasn’t a problem. It was very busy and noisy after school let out; she avoided being there at that time of day. It wasn’t a holiday either, so she didn’t know why the boys weren’t in class. Seemed like a lot of them to have played hooky all at the same time—then her mind caught her up briefly, as so often happened: did people use that term anymore? “Hooky”? Language changed, but she wasn’t always aware of the changes…actually, she was seldom if ever aware of them. Probably no one said “hooky” any more…

   Anyway, was it an early dismissal day? No---if it was, there would be a lot more young people walking home, going into the shops, standing around and talking with each other. Today there was only this small group of teenage boys.

   All this went through her mind in a flash as she kept walking. She barely glanced in their direction. She had discovered that looking too long might cause a reaction. She hoped they would ignore her as she walked down the street toward the church. Maybe she could reach it, and disappear inside in time…

   No such luck. They started talking and pointing at her, and even laughing.

   “Hey, old lady, can’t you move any faster?”

   “What’s up, lady? Goin’ to visit your boyfriend?” This was followed by howls of laughter, as the speaker was slapped on the back for this gem of wittiness.

   “Get out of our neighborhood! You don’t belong here!”

   It was true that the neighborhood around the church had changed dramatically since she started attending the church, when she was much younger. She used to know almost all the people who lived there. Now she knew no one.

   The church then had been filled with people: families with children, speaking many languages and celebrating many traditions, but brought together in their love of God and their dedication to his church. Where had all those families gone? she wondered. Where were those children now? They were completely different from the young people standing across the street from her.

   She continued walking towards the church, hoping that they’d get bored with teasing her and leave her alone. But it got worse. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a couple of them start across the street towards her. She tried to walk a bit faster, but knew that if she went too fast, she could fall. Her doctor had told her, “No more falls, or you’ll have to use a walker!” She hated the thought. She might be getting old, but she wasn’t elderly—yet. No matter what her doctor said.

   If she pretended not to see them, maybe the boys would let her alone. She faced forward and kept on walking, but suddenly she felt a jerk which almost caused her to fall backwards. One of the boys had grabbed at her canvas carry-bag.

   “Hey, what’s in here, grandma? Something for me? Did you bring a present for me?” The whole group laughed at that, from both sides of the street.

   “Please,” she said, “I’m just going to the church. There’s nothing in there, just something for the church.”

   The boys laughed again, as most of the group drifted over to where she stood, trembling a little. The first speaker yanked the bag again and this time it slipped off her arm. She tried to grab it back but nearly lost her balance again. The boy who had taken the bag opened it and looked inside. He stopped and his face went blank, then he threw it back at her quickly. As she tried to catch it, to prevent the candles from hitting the ground and maybe breaking, she fell heavily, awkwardly, crying out when she landed. Her cries were drowned out by sneering laughter. She felt sharp pains in various places and looked at him in fear.

   “This is boring,” the first speaker said to the others, as he gave her an inscrutable look. “C’mon, let’s get out of here.”

   From the ground, she watched them saunter away, laughing. Despite the pain from hitting the sidewalk, she was immensely relieved that they were leaving her so soon. Thank you, God…


   Her doctor scolded her; she’d been seeing him for years, and he treated her a little like an elderly aunt.

   “Thank goodness you didn’t break anything, although I have no idea why not! But you are badly bruised and will be in a lot of pain for some time. Bed rest for a while until the bruises go away—no extended trips outside your home!” He was adamant about that and sent her home with some mild pain killers. A kind neighbor volunteered to do her grocery shopping for a while and also bring in her mail.

   While she was recuperating, her priest came to visit her. He was shocked to hear what had happened and suggested that someone else take over the candle and votive stand responsibilities. But at this, her natural stubbornness asserted itself. She’d been doing this for years and intended to continue until she couldn’t manage it any longer! He reluctantly gave in, but insisted that she confine her trips to Saturdays, when school was not in session. She was struck by the simple solution and readily agreed. He’d then asked her if she had recognized her assailant, but she shook her head. The boy was completely unfamiliar to her; she had never seen him before. The priest expressed disappointment; he said that his experience had been that, when a young person was caught in wrongdoing and made to suffer the consequences, there was a good chance that they might change their ways. He left on this note, giving her something to think about. She could only visualize the boy vaguely, but she knew she’d never forget the expression on his face after he’d tossed the bag back at her.


   A few weeks later she made her first trip back to the church. It was threatening rain that Saturday; she should have stayed home, but knew it was past time to check the votive stand. If they ran out of candles, people coming to pray would be disappointed. She felt well enough to go and had hoped the rain would hold off until she was finished and back home. Unfortunately, it started while she was on her way there; she just made it into the narthex before it began to come down heavily. I’ll be here a while, she thought. No need to hurry now!

   She made her usual prediction as she neared the stand: the upper right-hand corner candle insert would definitely need replacing. Yep, she was right—burned empty as always. Someone must really like that spot, she noted. Can’t blame ‘em—I always use the one in the opposite corner, don’t I? Guess I’m not the only obsessive one. She’d have to remember that example for the next time she and her doctor argued about her behavior.

   She finished refilling the candle holders and put the empty inserts into her bag, to throw away later. After unlocking and looking in the money box, she decided there wasn’t enough to remove; it was only a few dollars in coins. No need to take out that small of an amount. She’d wait another couple of Saturdays.

   It was still raining hard--she could actually hear the faint sound of raindrops hitting the church roof and very little light came through the stained glass windows. She decided to wait a while before going home; perhaps it would clear up, or at least subside into only a drizzle. Her umbrella could keep her fairly dry, but steady rain made it hard to see to walk safely. At times like this, she wondered if maybe she should get a walker…she made a face at the thought.

   She picked up her carry-bag and went to her usual pew, on the other side of the church from the votive stand. She kept a couple of small pillows there, to ease the occasional pains in her legs and back; they were helpful now, to cushion the fading bruised places, which were still a bit sore. She settled herself, with the bag on her lap, and said a few prayers. “When in Rome,” she thought, and then laughed at herself. Really, the things that flit through my mind…

   The quietness and dimness of the church and the light, regular sound of the raindrops soon lulled her to sleep.

   Something caused her to waken all at once. She didn’t move for a moment, trying to recall where she was, and then the uncertainty sharpened into focus. She was in church, it was still dark inside because of the rain clouds, and someone was walking towards the votive stand. She stayed still and watched, not wanting to disturb someone else’s prayer time. They wouldn’t be able to see her in the cloud-caused dim light—she could only make them out because of the little wall sconces near the stand.

   The person paused in front of the stand for a moment, and then started to do something. Instead of lighting one of the candles, however, they leaned over, fumbling with something below the stand. From the clinking sounds, she guessed that they were doing something with the money box--putting coins in? No, it sounded like the little door at the back of the money box being opened. But she and the priest had the only keys! This certainly wasn’t the priest—was someone picking the lock? Then she heard the familiar slithering sound of coins being poured out. Someone was taking the candle money! Someone was stealing from the church! She was angered and indignant but didn’t move. She’d heard too many horror stories about what happened to people who tried to stop robbers; she’d seen too many violent altercations on the city streets. But she was disappointed that it was too dark in the church to make out any details about the thief, so that she could report it to the priest and the police.

   There were more sounds: the back of the money box closing, the box being returned to its place. The thief would leave quickly now, she expected, but that did not happen. Instead, there was silence for a bit, and then she heard the sound of a match being struck. She watched as the upper right-hand corner candle flamed into life. The figure then bowed its head and stood still. Without thinking about what she was doing, she clutched the carry-bag to her chest, got to her feet, and moved quietly down the pew until she came to the center aisle. She started to hear different sounds, bits of softly spoken words. She crossed the aisle to get closer; the words became distinguishable.

   “…sorry, so sorry…not for me, for my mom…I’m sorry…” The figure bowed again and then turned away from the votive stand toward the front entrance. As she walked closer, the sound of her steps made the person turn in her direction and freeze in a half crouch, fists clenched.

   At that moment, the light came streaming in through the rose window. She thought of several things at once: the clouds breaking up, letting the light go through; the breathtaking beauty of so many colors falling across the stone floor, the pews, the votive stand; and a young man’s face. A very young man—actually a boy, with a very familiar-looking face. She suddenly realized that she was looking at the boy who had yanked away her carry-bag a few weeks ago. An intense fear washed over her as she noted his defensive stance, and then vanished as quickly as it had come. Why is that? she wondered. Why am I not afraid any more? And then she saw what had caught her eye, unconsciously—the glimmer of tears on his face, and an expression of guilt and shame.

   The light coming through the window widened as the clouds broke up more and more—widened further until the bright colors fell on her, too. The boy squinted, blinked, and then focused on where she was standing; he straightened up, and she saw instant recognition in his eyes. They both stood silently, staring at each other. We’re inside a rainbow, she thought obliquely. God’s rainbow. God’s promise. Why?

   She moved closer, half-expecting him to run away, but he didn’t. The clouds shifted again and the area of colored light shrunk, but still surrounded the two of them.

   There was a short silence. “You took the candle money,” she finally said, matter-of-factly. “You’ve been taking it for a while, haven’t you?”

   He looked at her in fear. “Yes,” he said, “but not for me! It’s for my mom, for her medicine. She’s sick, and the medicine costs a lot of money. More than we have…”

   “Is she going to get better?”

   The boy’s face crumpled and he looked down. “I don’t know. She’s been sick a long time.”

   There was more silence as she watched tears roll down the boy’s face. His fists clenched again, but she ignored it this time. Dear Lord, what should I do? she thought dispassionately—and then she knew. The colored lights coming through the window intensified briefly and then dimmed.

   She leaned forward and spoke quietly. “May I come and see your mother?” He looked up apprehensively. “No, not to tell on you. Just for a visit, to see how she’s doing?” She hesitated for a moment and then took some money out of her carry-bag and put it into his hand. “This is for you, for your mother’s medicine.”

   He stared at the money in his hand, and then said, “No! Take it back!” He dug the coins from the votive stand out of his pocket and tried to hand everything back to her. “I’ve taken that money lots of times---and I hurt you….” He collapsed onto his knees, sobbing.

   She carefully lowered herself to the floor, while holding on to the arm of a pew, and put her hand on his shoulder.

   “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he kept crying; his hands opened up and the money fell to the floor. She moved her own hand and gently touched his cheek. He looked at her. “How can you be nice to me? I steal from God and I hurt you!”

   “You are sorry. God forgives you—I forgive you.”

   He took a breath and spoke again. “How can you forgive me? I was mean—I laughed at you and I threw that bag at you. You fell over and cried out. I did that.”

   She picked up the money and handed it back to him, folding his hand tightly over it. “I’m all right. And you will be, too. Go home to your mother and take care of her. Come back here and pray any time you like. God sees your candle and hears your prayers. He heard you say that you’re sorry.”

   The boy reached out his other hand tentatively and put it on hers; all their hands were clasped together now. “I’m so sorry, so sorry,” he repeated in a whisper.

   For a while, neither of them moved. Around them, the colors from the windows shone even brighter.

Copyright 2020 by Mary M. Isaacs, from the book, "Lux Umbra Dei"

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